Brave Leadership in Organizational Conflict

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Conflict within a nonprofit organization can be scary. At their best, nonprofits put into collective practice the personal passions and beliefs of their members. This may intensify a conflict or, conversely, cause it to be buried in the name of surface unity. Either way, intractable conflict can cause loss of funding or of leadership, or it may destabilize the system in any number of other ways. People within the organization know this and may react with fear, choosing sides or assigning blame.

For the brave leaders of a nonprofit, what does it mean to handle conflict well? To answer this question, we need first to distinguish between everyday, or discrete, conflict and noxious conflict.

Most conflicts are minor and can be handled relatively easily. Managers, staff and even board members can help each party understand the other’s point of view or help them agree to disagree. This kind of simple tinkering is a constant requirement of managers.

Suppose the development director and a program director have an argument when they’re on deadline for a grant proposal. The agency’s executive director gets complaints from each about the other. After the grant is safely in, the director might make a point of thanking them for working as a team to get the grant out. In individual supervision sessions, she could talk about the conflict, reviewing each person’s responsibility for what happened and being clear about behavioral changes she expects. She could also take time in a staff meeting to publicly acknowledge the courage it took for both parties to make the situation work.

At this point, the program director and development director could formally or informally agree to put the matter behind them. They might even make e-mail suggestions to the rest of the program directors about how to avoid a similar situation. This is good management of a conflict.

From time to time, more mean-spirited conflict may emerge with sufficient intensity that it threatens the health of the organization as a whole. In some cases the conflict will extend over many months or even years, finally influencing a significant portion of the organizational culture. This noxious conflict makes work difficult and drains the energy of everyone around it.

The solutions for noxious conflict require changes in the structure and norms of an organization. Noxious conflict indicates that it’s time for an agency to question the assumptions that underlie how it does business.

The community and the funders of the Clearwater Community Development Corporation (CDC) encouraged the corporation to create the new position of Community Liaison. The CDC chose Tamara Sensul, the Director of Community Programs, to develop the position. She designed it as a bridge job, in which the liaison would bring together residents, community boards, politicians and businesspeople to discuss the needs of the residents in the CDC’s properties. The liaison would report to the Director of Community Programs and would need to speak the language of both the CDC’s planners and CDC residents.

The position description called for two or more years’ experience working with CDCs, a master’s degree in urban planning, strong written and oral communication skills and a track record of facilitating community meetings. Soon afterward the hiring team found Syl Jones, who surpassed the job requirements. But a month later Tamara was less than convinced that the team had hired the right person, questioning whether Jones, who seemed very disengaged, was at all interested in the residents’ points of view. After eight weeks on the job, Jones announced that he had accepted a job as assistant director of community mortgages at a local bank.

Because this happened so quickly, the hiring team then offered the position to Val Guenther, their second choice. Val accepted, but within a month Tamara again questioned whether they’d hired the right person, as Val constantly argued with her. After six heated arguments in a two-month period, Val approached the Executive Director (ED) and complained that Tamara was micromanaging him.

The ED refused to intervene. He told Val to take it up with Tamara directly. Afterward the ED told Tamara to keep track of her problems with Val so that she could let him go.

Within two weeks of that discussion, the CDC received an unexpected opportunity to bid for a series of projects. This required large portions of Tamara’s and the ED’s time. The interactions between Tamara and Val became more and more charged. Val, who had resolved originally to figure out a way to get back on the right track with Tamara, instead decided to quit after three months.

The ED blamed Tamara for not resolving the situation more quickly. The resignation came a mere week before the Clearwater CDC’s annual stakeholder meeting. The ED told Tamara that the resignation would look very bad, as the liaison position had been declared a priority at the previous year’s meeting.

Subsequently, the ED “rode herd” on Tamara in terms of her supervision of staff. However, the real issues at stake remained unresolved. Did the hiring criteria and the job description fit the needs of the liaison job? Did the ED’s refusal to get involved indicate a weak system of support and guidance for the position? Did this in turn indicate a weak organizational commitment to the liaison’s role in the community? Most fundamentally, did the CDC have any real commitment to the quality of life of the residents, or was the organization too focused on housing development and management to give more than lip service to residents’ concerns?

These are questions that could easily cause rifts between the CDC board and management. But by not asking them, the organization runs the risk that the conflict will resurface in the future.

The constituent-driven board of Kelsey Parent Advocacy Organization (PAO) wanted to fire one of its board members, Jane Osbourne. Other members were fed up with Jane’s behavior, especially the way in which she droned on about the organization’s quarterly newsletter. The other members felt she was drawing valuable time and energy away from other important projects.

On the other hand, Jane, a neighborhood parent of three middle school students, was the hardest-working volunteer on the board, creating a draft of the newsletter every quarter and turning it over to the staff to complete. Kelsey PAO only had three people on staff: a Parent Organizer, an Administrative Assistant and an Executive Director (ED).

The other board members complained among themselves about the extra work the newsletter required after Jane turned in the draft. It had become a running joke to make fun of her flowery language—a point of comfortable connection, in fact, among other board members. In board meetings when Jane opened her mouth, people rolled their eyes and sometimes just cut her off.

This low-grade conflict went on for more than a year without being formally addressed. Staff members were eventually drawn into it. Things came to a head when Jane declared her interest in a new staff position. At a board meeting, the treasurer remarked that Jane should not apply because the job needed someone who could “perform in the position.” Other board members chuckled and the meeting turned into a tearful shouting match.

After this disaster, the ED suggested hiring a facilitator to get to the bottom of the dysfunction on the board. In the course of that intervention, board members finally confessed their long-standing frustration with Jane and her newsletter drafts. One board member muttered, “If you can call them drafts,” after which more laughter erupted from board members.

Jane left the meeting in tears again. The ED tried to talk her into returning, but she refused. Then the ED scolded the board members for their behavior. The members felt mildly regretful for a few weeks, but they soon got back to business as usual, eventually dumping the newsletter.

The tensions about Jane and the newsletter might have been a doorway to healthy organizational change if the players had been able to look more deeply at the dynamics of the whole agency. For example, if Kelsey PAO was committed to developing a newsletter, why did it permit such an inefficient publishing process to persist for a year? If it wasn’t, why did it continue using up valuable resources on the newsletter? What did this say about the degree to which the board had thought through a strategic approach to the organization’s work? The newsletter conflict was a flashpoint—a symptom of a nest of interconnected problems, utterly common in small nonprofits.

Think about the carnival game in which gophers pop up and you have to hit as many as possible as quickly as possible, using a mallet. The leaders of Clearwater CDC and Kelsey PAO swung a mallet at the gophers without catching the pattern of the pop-ups. In so doing, they actually blocked organizational resolution. They were not creatively using the energy produced by the conflict to bring about positive organizational change.

But this is easier said than done, of course. Leaders of organizations are still learning how to perceive and welcome conflict’s messages. Here are some helpful hints:

When a conflict emerges, see if you can connect it to others. Trace it back in time. Think about the issues that have surfaced in the conflict. Have they surfaced previously? What is the history of the situation? Have conversations with people about how the situation has evolved. Be willing to give up your own construction of reality in the process. In the meantime, stay in touch with the people directly involved in the conflict.

Overcome the cynicism of others. People in and around the organization might believe that the current state of affairs is the way leadership wants it. Staff might, in fact, think of any questioning as a trick or a waste of their time. People might also fear that they are being asked to air the dirty laundry of others. If you experience ambivalence and silence from people with potential information, start by expressing openness and your own willingness to be proven wrong (which had better be genuine!). Let them know how you are going to move forward—that you truly want their point of view to be included in a whole-system view of the problem.

Face your own and others’ fears of irretrievable rupture. If a problem with deep implications surfaces, you might experience some sort of organizational rupture—in other words, a breakdown that portends a loss of staff, board members, managers or funding. As you conceive and implement a re-organization, emotions—and resistance—will be very high. The more you retain those in fear as participants in the conversation, the less powerful such resistance becomes. Also, don’t make the mistake of underestimating your own fear. Talk it through with a trusted advisor who is willing to be honest and, if necessary, lovingly harsh with you.

Resist the urge to maintain stability. Many believe that the mark of a well-run organization is in its stability. But the ability to evolve powerfully is just as important. One of the inherent contradictions at the core of organizational life is that we struggle to adapt and evolve at the same time as we struggle mightily to stay the same. This contradiction inherently causes tension.Hold that tension and legitimate it as an energy source for change. This may feel unbearable to those who like to get things in order as quickly as possible. Remember that good management in a developing organization (which we all are) requires leaders who can maintain a balance between the chaos of not knowing and the orderliness of knowing.

When organizations begin to fail or when they have failed repeatedly, they start to send out showy flares. Some of this will materialize as conflict.

Leaders can help their organizations uncover the problems beneath this conflict, or they can retard and obfuscate the process. When leaders get in the way of the process, sometimes it’s because they believe that they alone are responsible for solving the problem. That’s not the case. Leaders are responsible for keeping their organizations relevant and effective. One way to do that is to bravely undertake holistic inquiry into the true origins of noxious organizational conflicts.

Kenneth Bailey is a Fellow at the MIT Center for Reflective Community Practice and at Stone Circles.